Tag Archives: coalitions

Comment on Clegg’s Claimed Calamitous Camaroon Coalition – Crap!

I forgot to plug my Comment is Free article which was published yesterday. In it, I give pretty short shrift to the ideas that Nick Clegg has just announced his intention to form a coalition with the Tories and that the Lib Dems should be bending over backwards to spell out their terms for a coalition of any kind:

There is no enthusiasm within the party for co-operation with the Conservative party, but working with Labour is almost as unenticing a prospect. To be seen propping up a government which has just lost the election after 13 years of office would cost the Lib Dems almost all their political capital.

For the party to put its neck on the line in this way, it would need some pretty concrete guarantees. Sunder Katwala of the Fabians has made a list of necessary policy changes that would be a good start – but thus far Labour isn’t offering any of it. The idea expressed by some other Labour supporters that the Lib Dems should be offering them some sort of blank cheque to carry on as usual on the simple calculation that the Tories would be far worse is simply laughable, and typical of the sort of pigheadedness that has got Labour into the mess it is now in.

Read it in full here.

Both Labour and the Tories keep claiming that every single idea the Lib Dems have ever had is awful and something that they would agree to over their collective dead bodies (leaving aside the ones they periodically ‘borrow’). Until that tone changes, I suggest we all take it at face value and stop worrying about coalitions – they aren’t going to happen. In that respect, it doesn’t matter what Clegg says; what matters is what Cameron and Brown are saying.

Who killed the rainbow?

An unseemly spat has broken out between Bethan Jenkins and Peter Black on Twitter:

PB: @bethanjenkins you were considering rainbow option weeks after LD exec vote. Your rejected it. Nothing delusional about that.
BJ: @peterblackwales- your party refused it before that.
PB: @bethanjenkins no it didnt Bethan.My party voted for it. Stop rewriting history.
BJ: @peterblackwales i think you are the one doing that.
PB: @bethanjenkins not at all. Review the events not the myths generated by your spin doctors.

…and so on. Speaking as an outsider, what surprises me is that this is even a matter of debate. The timetable of events is quite clear:

24 May 2009: Rainbow Coalition talks in disarray after Lib Dem NEC rejects the proposal on the chair’s casting vote.
25 May 2009: Rhodri Morgan reelected first minister unopposed.
26 May 2009: Special Lib Dem conference overturns executive decision.
27 June 2009: Labour and Plaid form “One Wales” coalition.

Now, you could argue a lot of things here. The first thing would be that the Lib Dems were badly split, chaotic, unreliable and not exactly broadcasting their fitness to govern. You could argue that Plaid were only doing the sensible thing from both Wales’ and their own best interests. If you did, I’d be inclined to agree with you. What you can’t argue however is that the Lib Dems were the ones to kill the rainbow coalition talks – that responsibility rests with Plaid and Plaid alone. If you read the quotes from both Mike German and Nick Bourne at the time the deal was struck, it is clear that both of them considered the Rainbow deal to still be on the table. It was Plaid who walked away.

I simply don’t understand why Bethan is denying responsibility here instead of taking pride in walking away from a deal which I sniffed of stitch up (at least from the Tories’ point of view – they hardly seemed to be negotiating at all). I suspect it has something to do with the fact that she doesn’t feel particularly proud of Plaid’s record in office.

But the other thing about this whole debacle worth noting is that what was bad for political parties was very good indeed for democracy. One of the common criticisms of proportional voting systems is that they lead to government being stitched up by people in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. What the 2007 Welsh (and for that matter, Scottish) experience shows is that this is far from the case. The Welsh negotiations were held in public – too public for a lot of people’s liking. They took place over a period of weeks and the challenge was to sort out an agreement that best reflected how Wales as a whole had voted.

Contrast that with FPTP. Normally there are no formal coalition deals, to be sure. But since all parties are coalitions of interest, that isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of negotiations going on behind the scenes. But ultimately, as the typical Labour backbencher will agree (off the record and out of the earshot of the whips), their power is strictly limited. The real power lies in the party funders and the pollsters. With so much focused on winning those all-important swing votes in those all-important marginal seats, the number of people who have a real say in proceedings is just a handful.

To be sure, parties are dependent on funders and pollsters in elections regardless of the electoral system, but their role is much more limited. Parties have to fight for every vote instead of being forced to take most of their core vote for granted and the party or coalition which goes on to take office has to have a mandate from at least 50% of the electorate.

The negotiations surrounding the running of Wales in 2007 were not very attractive, but there is little doubt that process was a robust one.

Deal or No Deal?

Oh dear, oh dear. It was all going so well.

I wasn’t at party conference and was having a nice lazy lie in when Ming’s speech was going on, but I’ve been following how the BBC’s line on his “five tests” for Gordon Brown has been developing. And it ain’t good.

Ming began his leadership by pledging that there would be no feverish talk of ‘deals’ while he was leader, yet he seems to be the one doing the talking, first in his interview with the Times last week, and now with this speech.

To be fair, as far as I can see the problem with the speech was not the content but the spin, but why are we setting Gordon Brown tests at all?

Curiously, Kennedy had a lot of flaws but he feverish talk of coalitions was something he managed to put a lid on under his leadership. Ming, of course, has form: in the late 90s he was part of the triumvirate that Earl Russell called MÖO – three MPs who had allegedly told Paddy they would defect if he pulled out the Labour-Lib Dem joint cabinet committee (the M stood for Ming of course; you can probably work out the other two). Of course, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and curiously a lot of the people most gung ho about a coalition with Labour at that time seem to now be maneuvering towards formal coalition with the Tories. Some third party politicians are the political equivalents of Anna Nicole Smith: obsessed with finding a sugar daddy with whom to get hitched, it doesn’t really matter who, because of the perceived riches that will follow.

I don’t consider Ming in that category; his support for working with Labour was always much more (like Paddy) about some Grimond-style realignment of the left rather than a desire for his bum to be in a Daimler. I’ve found it interesting to observe an increasing number of people in the party are now looking for reasons to form a coalition with Labour, less out of a desire for some broad progressive consensus and more out of a fear of the Conservatives, and I suspect it was an individual with similar views to this who gave the BBC the line about Ming wanting to jump in bed with Gordon.

The fear is well founded: one only needs to skim through the Tory blogging community to find that there are plenty of people out there who regard themselves as hardcore Cameroonies but whose personal politics are somewhat closer to Edward Leigh’s. They may pay lip service to the rhetoric, but it is all the means to an end. New Tories may counter that people said the same thing about New Labour in the 90s, but for me the change in Labour back then was much more sincere. The nasty hard left that had dominated Labour in the 70s and early 80s was never really integral to the traditional Labour Party. By contrast, even though Cameron now embraces cuddly concepts such as hugging hoodies and huskies, his power base lies in the Tory right. Norman Lamont and Michael Howard are his political forebears, not Ken Clarke or Malcolm Rifkind. It is that fact that has allowed Cameron to do what he has done, but we can be forgiven therefore for believing it is a strategic shift rather than a practical one.

Cameron’s big test will be the publication of all these policy reviews, many of which will almost certainly be contradictory, some of which (particularly the Quality of Life one) are likely to demand the party goes off in a direction it is unlikely to be comfortable with. I remain of the opinion that much of the sheen will come off at that point: maybe not enough to prevent Labour losing their majority but enough to deny the Tories one themselves.

Yet for all that, I’m not one of those people who feel that the Lib Dems ought to be in any hurry to jump into bed with the devil we know (Labour). The public would rightly ask why we were propping up a tired government who we are much further apart politically now than when they first sought office. I’m sceptical about the desirability of us entering into coalition with either side. For all their shouting, both Labour and the Tories are far more similar politically than the Lib Dems are with either of them. Why should we be under any more of an obligation to form a coalition with one of them than they have to form one between them? Nothing is written in stone – just ask the Germans.

There is a lot of merit in the party staying out of any coalition. First past the post, in which a few random votes in the right places can have massive impacts on the number of seats each party gets is particularly unkind to third parties who take part in them. Worse, because the party has excelled in recent years at hoovering up anti votes against both the other parties, we have more or less made it impossible for us to go into a coalition on either side without paying a heavy political price. It isn’t the Promised Land that some people in the party think it is; it’s an opportunity to get well and truly shafted. The benefits would have to be pretty huge to outweigh the price, and yet paradoxically the party is unlikely to see them if it is seen to be too eager.

Campbell should have stuck with his far more useful rhetoric of maximum seats and maximum votes. There is a real danger that talk of coalition now will make it the key issue that the media decides is the Lib Dem ‘agenda’ (and what a surprise to learn that Mark Oaten looks set to make the matter worse). In some ways this is much better than the current one about our leadership woes, but it is a corrosive one. Ming should be working to shut down this debate. After this week he can no longer avoid the issue, so instead he should be ruling it out as far as he can, talking up the possibility of the Lib Dems remaining independent in the case of a hung parliament.

Ultimately though, even staying out of coalition can have a heavy political price – there is no ‘easy’ solution. If the party is to survive relatively intact over the next decade, it has to become much better at defining itself. This is make or break time: if the party manages to hold firm over the next decade it is likely to come out of it much stronger; it it doesn’t then the party will be set back for a couple of decade. Ming deserves credit for working to improve the party’s sense of identity, but feverish talk of coalition will only undermine it.